Winter weather can be both uncomfortable and dangerous for pets that spend a majority of their time outdoors. January and February are often the coldest months of the year, so it is important to be prepared to keep pets comfortable and safe during the cold temperatures.
Cold weather affects pets the same way it does people, said Dr. Christine Rutter, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. She recommends bringing pets inside whenever it is cold enough that people feel uncomfortable outside. If pets are left in the cold with no protection, serious health issues can occur.
“The majority of cold weather-related illnesses have to do with exposure to the cold itself,” Rutter said. “In some climates, generalized hypothermia and frostbite of toes, ears, lips, the nose and the tail can certainly occur.”
She said that hypothermia may cause pets to seem mentally dull or antisocial, while frostbite shows up as swollen, red lesions. Frostbite does not occur at a specific temperature, but rather results from a combination of cold weather, heat loss and decreased blood flow.
According to Rutter, some pets are especially sensitive to cold weather, including older animals, newborn animals, underweight and small animals, and those with shaved fur.
If it is not possible to bring a pet into the house during cold weather, there are several options for keeping them safe and warm. Rutter recommends using a garage or mud room for a pet shelter, as long as any trash and hazardous chemicals are inaccessible. She also said a small shelter, such as a dog house, can be filled with bedding to keep the animal warm.
“The key is that it has a small entrance and exit and that it’s protected from water, wind, and drafts,” Rutter said. “It’s very important that if you provide your pet with a heat source, that it not be a fire, carbon monoxide, or anything that could be an electrocution risk.”
She recommends using rice or oat bags that have been warmed, as long as they are not hot enough to cause burns.
Rutter also reminds pet owners that some common winter items, including sidewalk salt, de-icing fluids and chemicals for winterizing pipes, can be toxic to dogs and cats.
If a pet will be outside for a short period of time, such as for exercise, owners can take several steps to ensure the pet stays warm and comfortable. Rutter advises drying pets off after exercise, protecting their feet with boots or a waxy layer and dressing them in a coat to help with heat retention.
Even if you do not have a pet that stays outside, you can help keep stray animals and neighbors’ pets safe during the winter. Rutter said temporary shelters can be made out of storage bins or travel kennels. She also recommends banging on car hoods before starting the engine, because cats may have crawled under the hood for warmth.